Frustrated with high unemployment, poor public services and corruption, Iraqis have been transfixed by media coverage of the uprising in Cairo. But while many are filled with admiration for the Egyptian people’s efforts, most here appear reluctant to follow suit.
“I never watched any news on TV, but now I am following it daily,” said Namareq Sultan, 22, a medical student in Baghdad, regarding the coverage of the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “Even though we are busy with exams, we are making time to discuss the situation in Egypt. We want to have these kinds of protests. People there are speaking their minds while we are keeping quiet,” Sultan said.
“I used to listen to songs while driving through Baghdad, but now I am listening to the news in Egypt. I am eager to hear what will happen next,” said Abu Alaa, 34, a taxi driver.
Seemingly emboldened by what they’ve seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, some Iraqis — fed up with the way their country is run — have staged demonstrations over the past week. But the gatherings have drawn relatively small numbers — the largest in east Baghdad attracted just 3,000 people.
This, despite the fact that public anger has been simmering for years because of poor living standards and the government’s perceived lack of responsiveness to citizens’ needs.
Nearly eight years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, shortages of electricity and water continue to be the norm. In recent days, undercurrents of discontent have risen to the surface from Baghdad to the southern city of Basra — and clerics have warned the government to heed citizens’ demands.
Officials have indicated that they’re paying some attention to such demands.
The state-run newspaper al-Sabah reported that a government committee is considering cutting the salaries of high-ranking officials, including the president and the prime minister. The savings would be used to improve the lives of the poor.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already volunteered to cut his salary by half and provide citizens $12 every month on top of their food rations.
At the same time, the planning ministry revealed that it intends to create 4 million new jobs to cope with the staggering level of unemployment in the country, which is estimated at 15 percent, but is thought to be much higher.
On the other hand, officials say they’re heartened that demonstrators have called for improved government services rather than fundamental political change as they did in Egypt, an indication that Iraqis may actually feel empowered to challenge authority.
“Most were local demonstrations calling for better services,” said Ahmed al-Khafaji, a senior interior ministry official. “This is a positive trend that is in line with democracy. They are holding officials accountable.
“We are a country in transition and the services aren’t good. It’s the people’s right to demonstrate,” he added.
Indeed, the greatest threat to the development of democracy in Iraq may be public apathy. Ihsan Mohammed, a 30-year-old former military officer now working as a taxi driver in Baghdad, says people feel their voice carries little weight. “The problem in Iraq is you can say whatever you want, but no one listens,” Mohammed said. “Even if you take to the streets here, the government might only respond to 10 percent of your demands. And this wouldn’t be because of the people; they would make changes because of international pressure,” he said.
Others suggest that the small demonstrations reflect the absence of a protest culture.
Hashem Hasan, a professor of media studies in Baghdad University, said, “Iraqis are so far behind — they are influenced by tribal traditions rather than democracy.”
Still, politicians here realize that they ignore the lessons from Tunisia and Egypt at their own peril. Parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi was recently quoted as saying, “The popular fervor that is rocking neighboring countries confirms that ignoring people’s dreams and deluding them with false promises during campaigns causes explosions.”
• Mohammed is an editor in Iraq for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.